September 16, 2007

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14, Refrain 2
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

This morning, I’ve chosen to focus on the text from 1 Timothy, some of the opening lines of Paul’s letter to a younger colleague in Christian ministry, named Timothy. The major theme in the text is that of God’s amazing grace. It’s the same theme that pervades all of Paul’s letters, those to individuals and those to churches. Paul uses the word “grace” about a hundred times in the biblical letters that are attributed to him. It’s Paul who established the term “grace” (Greek charis) in the Christian vocabulary.

Of course, the idea of “grace” came with Jesus. That’s what the parables that we read today were about too. We do have a judging God, one who requires us to be good, but we also have a God who befriends us, who calls us to repentance, and who invites us to come home from our wandering like the prodigal son coming back to his Father. That’s grace. It’s not because we deserve it. It’s just because God loves us. And it’s the major theme in today’s reading from 1 Timothy.

A few of us were talking last weekend at women’s camp, about testimonies. Testimonies are not something that we hear in our mainline Reformed tradition very often, but many of us are familiar with testimonies from encounters with evangelical Christians. A believer gets up, usually in the context of worship or an evangelistic event, and he/she testifies or witnesses to God’s love and grace by telling his/her own story of a life-changing experience with Jesus.

When I think about testimonies, I always think of the story I heard told by a student in one of the campus Christian clubs when I was in university. He began by explaining how terrible his life was before he met Jesus. He was drunk or high every weekend. He was mixed up with a gang. He was shop-lifting regularly, and failing all his classes. I don’t remember the details of the story, but he told us about the worst night of his life, when he was so drunk and “out of it” that he ended up falling through a plate glass window in a shopping mall.

Then, somehow, he encountered Jesus. Maybe it was during the hospital stay as he recovered from his injuries. I don’t remember. But the point was that his life was changed dramatically. He turned his life around, repented, started over — and all because of God’s grace and love.

Most of us, who call ourselves followers of Jesus, don’t have stories or testimonies that are nearly so dramatic. Many of us have been Christians our whole lives. We’ve had our ups and downs, moments of doubt, and times when our faith has been strong and active. At times we may have wandered away, focussing on other priorities, but we’ve also had times when we committed ourselves to bible study, to prayer, and to service in the church. We’ve been through joy, and we’ve experienced grief… and God was with us through it all. Sometimes we remembered God’s presence. Other times we didn’t. If asked to give our testimonies, to witness to God’s grace and love in our lives, our stories might sound a bit mundane… not the kind of material that would convince the masses to turn to Jesus Christ and be saved!

Well, Paul’s story, as it’s related to us in the Book of Acts, and as it’s described in the letters, is one of those stories that is not at all mundane. It’s the kind of story of conversion, of repentance, of God’s grace, that has served over the years to direct many people towards God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Paul, originally known as Saul, was a Pharisee. He was a religious leader who believed in God and zealously lived according to the laws of Moses. But Saul was also a persecutor of Christians. He rejected Jesus, and he was involved in the torture and killing of some of the early Christian leaders. Saul’s dramatic conversion took place on the road to Damascus, where he was blinded by a bright light and he heard the voice of Jesus asking him, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

In the first letter to Timothy, Paul writes: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy… and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

In telling his story of being transformed from a persecutor to an Apostle, Paul puts himself forward as an example of the worst sinner who received God’s amazing, overflowing grace. Paul tells Timothy that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — of whom I am the foremost.” Paul’s witness is this: “Look, God had mercy on me and transformed my life. God can do the same for you.”

But unlike some testimonies that I have heard, Paul’s story does not imply that once he found Jesus, everything was hunky dory, life was a breeze, and things just worked out nicely after that. As an Apostle of Jesus, Paul experienced persecution himself. He was tortured, imprisoned, and he suffered a great deal.

And though he’s reputed to have been one of the greatest Apostles, setting up and supporting Christian churches all over, and working tirelessly for the ministry of Christ, Paul still wasn’t perfect. Paul still struggled to follow Jesus and his ways. He wrote about a thorn in his flesh, something that troubled and wounded him. And like the rest of us, even though he knew what was right, he didn’t always do everything right. In Romans, Paul wrote: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Haven’t we all felt like that at times? We know what’s right. We know what’s good. But we are tempted, or lazy, or we convince ourselves that it doesn’t really matter what we do, that it won’t make that much difference anyway.

Well, the God we come to know in the Hebrew scriptures is one who says that it does matter how we live. That’s what we heard from the prophet Jeremiah today. It matters that we do good. It matters that we work for justice. It matters that we seek the truth and stand up for the oppressed. God has high standards for us, and God is a God of judgment.

But the God that we come to know through Jesus Christ — the same God — is one who is merciful and forgiving. God searches for the one who is lost. God rejoices over one sinner who repents. God had enough grace for the likes of Saul, and God has enough grace for each of us when we mess up as well.

This morning, we began our Sunday morning bible study on the Book of James. (It’s not too late, BTW, if you want to join us next Sunday… just speak to me after worship today.) Anyway, the Book of James is a book that focuses on the good we are called to do as faithful and obedient followers of Jesus.

There was a time when James was hotly debated, and some people even questioned whether it should be in the Bible or not. The reason was that James focuses on the works we do as Christians, saying things like “Faith without works is dead.” People thought that by talking about works, James was denying God’s grace… that amazing grace that Paul was so fond of talking about… that grace that extended even to Saul, the worst of sinners.

But the reality is that when we are converted, when we repent and turn towards God, it is God’s grace that gives us another chance, but it is God’s judgment that requires us to do something different with our lives. As the theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would say, “God’s grace is not cheap.”

For most of us, our turning towards God, our conversion, is not one dramatic story of “sinner to saint” that we can tell in ten minutes or less. We are on a life-long journey that includes faith and doubt, faithfulness and failure. Today, let us be reminded of God’s amazing grace that extends even to us, and that invites us to turn our lives again towards the works and service and love that are the marks of Jesus’ followers.

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen.